Poets Young, Old, Mild, Bold (Revised)

  • Robin Richardson
    Sit How You Want. Signal Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Laura Ritland
    East and West. Signal Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Richard Sanger
    Dark Woods. Biblioasis (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Michael Harris
    The Gamekeeper. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Dorothy Roberts and Brian Bartlett (Editor)
    The Essential Dorothy Roberts. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley

There are so many poets in Canada, and so many poets writing well, and writing well in so many ways, that to make generalizations about the state of the art is almost certainly to miss the mark. Nonetheless I’ll venture the opinion that youngish poets today—under forty, say—generally have an astounding technical facility and a surprising polish that suggests the beneficial effect of the creative writing workshop. In The Next Wave: An Anthology of 21st Century Canadian Poetry (2018), the editor Jim Johnstone (b. 1978) presents the writing of forty poets who have announced themselves in the last decade and a half. Forty! The century’s barely old enough to drive. And yet I can think of two dozen poets more who might have made the cut. Johnstone’s book ranges alphabetically from Jordan Abel (b. 1985) to Catriona Wright (b. 1985); some of the poets, such as Billy-Ray Belcourt (b. 1994) and Michael Prior (b. 1990), are young indeed, although others are older than the fortyish anthologist (who is a poet too). Maybe what I’m noticing is not the province of youth alone, but rather a general renewal of interest in poetry’s formal properties and possibilities. In their first books (and second, and third . . .), the poets I have in mind are at minimum remarkably competent; often they are truly excellent. Sometimes, however, a surfeit of technique is accompanied by a tone or mood of hesitation, or a fuzziness of conception, such that poems may use language precisely and memorably, yet still seem unsure about what they seek to say, or reluctant to identify clearly the subject at hand. For whatever reason, there is caginess in the air, as two of the books under review here suggest. The other three books are not by young authors—and one poet is no longer with us—but in their own fashion they attest the liveliness and variety of Canadian poetry.

In East and West, Laura Ritland (b. 1990) demonstrates technical sophistication and a fascination with the anxiety and disenchantment of young adulthood. Ritland has a gift for description, and because she writes so assuredly, her poems are compelling even when they are wistful and melancholy in a not uncommon way. Her poetry owes something to that of Karen Solie, whose tone (glib, deadpan), posture (world-weary), humour (dry), and habits (abrupt shifts in register and lexicon, a conciseness of phrase that verges on solecism) may be detected in East and West.[1] Ritland’s “Norway” concerns the impossibility of being at home, whether in the family house, which is “not what it was,” or in a country as a whole (19). In sentiment and turn of phrase, the poem’s final statement—“land disowns us, not we it” (19)—is distinctly reminiscent of Solie, but I take such echoes as evidence of affinity rather than unoriginality. On the contrary, in “Norway” as in other poems, Ritland sounds like herself. She frequently explores both uncanniness and familiarity, which now and then breeds affection. In “East and West,” a veiled portrait of Vancouver, she concludes with an equivocal proposition: “Stay anywhere long enough, / the contradictions resemble love” (69). “Summer Parties,” the first poem in East and West, expresses a longing for contact and communication. “If you’ve been looking for a song // strong enough to guide you, / prop open the window” (11): the lines invite readers into the book, and suggest that in subsequent poems Ritland will proceed by overhearing, by eavesdropping, by standing at a slight remove from the action, poised between conviviality and loneliness.

In several poems, Ritland depicts youthful incidents and rites of passage, but she is less concerned with decisive moments than with the quality of perceptiveness, which changes over time. In “Introduction to Mystery,” she describes a childish state of wide-eyedness, but in the next poem, “Arrival at the New College,” the speaker, now on the verge of adulthood, is aware of a world passing her by like an uncaught train: “I heard the future singing above me on steel rails. / I knew then I’d missed it by two minutes” (18). My favourite poem in East and West is “Sea Spider,” a work of compressed evocation that gets the marine arachnid right in only six lines, and in suitably spidery style: “At two thousand fathoms, / a living kernel, scrabbling, / tiny, set. Eyeless, it persists” (64). Ritland indulges the temptation to read such poems as statements about poetry. Her “scrabbling” is perilously close to scribbling, and the spider, we presume, leaves faint marks on the seabed’s page. Why would Ritland imagine the poet as a sightless creature? Possibly because she distrusts poetry. “How you hate poetry,” she writes in “April” (77), with a hint of Marianne Moore, whose notorious hat is the topic of another poem. East and West suggests that Ritland is chronically unsure of where to go and uncertain of what to say. She is perpetually on the verge of something, and in moments of indecision she persists, observing, noticing. Ritland is, to resort to a cliché that she would forbear, a poet to watch. No—a poet to watch watching.

The title of Sit How You Want, the third book by Robin Richardson (b. 1985), implies disregard for decorum, permission to do as one likes. In the title poem, “Sit How You Want, Dear; No One’s Looking,” Richardson proclaims that now is the hour of independence and bravura: “It’s time to hang out / naked in your kitchen, cook the landlord / his beloved dog. You’re free, baby” (67). Her poems are rambunctious but bleak in outlook. Hints of danger are everywhere. In “Disembodied at the Botanical Gardens,” the speaker suggests the reckless poet’s powers of invention: “Please let me be a blaze. I will destroy, / I mean create again this place” (66). Richardson’s principal theme is that relationships (primarily but not exclusively romantic) are virtually by definition occasions for abuses of power. “Go by Contraries” takes its title from Robert Frost’s “West-Running Brook,” and Richardson confirms the allusion partway through: “All the brooks run west as if they knew we’d stop / to quarrel” (70). While Frost’s poem is a conjugal dialogue between husband and wife, Richardson’s poem concerns the “plane crash” of the speaker’s relationship (70). The last lines turn from personal disaster to existential matters: “Being / is our birthright, sure, but being piggybacks us / seriously sadly to its edge and shrugs” (70). The patently colloquial “sure” and the ambiguous “seriously” give an ironic edge to the seemingly earnest philosophizing. Does the adverb mean “gravely,” “alarmingly,” or just, you know, really?

Despite Richardson’s wit and flair for language, it can be difficult to discern her poems’ meaning. They start and end in the middle of things; they eschew context. The first poem in Sit How You Want, “Ars Poetica,” is equally exciting and frustrating:

Spent a year trying to write poems that weren’t about me
came up with carbon monoxide and the sitcom banter
of paramedics which was about me made puns like my ex
who translates translations into double entendres whom
everyone adored then didn’t tried to write like those
who died especially Franz Wright which was really about me . . . (11)

The first-person pronoun is omitted for the sake of nonchalance, I suppose, but the absence of punctuation is perplexing. Is the allusion to Wright particularly significant or merely an autobiographical detail? Is the reference to “carbon monoxide” grim “banter,” or is it a personal admission meant to unnerve? Poems should never give away all their secrets, and Richardson’s writing, stylishly elliptical, makes a virtue of elusiveness. At times it hints at a world hors texte, suggesting in one breath that poetry could be a form of coded autobiography, and in the next refusing the pretence of transparency that characterized the confessional poetry of the late 1950s and after. Friends, relations, events, and intuitions are introduced in detail, and then whisked away as the poems move on to their next subjects, creating an aesthetics of restlessness and perseverance. “Can’t get dead if you keep going,” Richardson writes in “This Year’s Going to Be Different,” “so I’ll go until there’s nothing left to go to” (15).

Allusions, illusions. The nod to Dante’s Inferno in the title of Richard Sanger’s Dark Woods—“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura” (4)—suggests a preoccupation with middle age, and with the desire for clear-sightedness that comes with advancing years.[2] Sanger (b. 1960) is not nearly so young as Ritland and Richardson, but Dark Woods, his first book of poetry since Calling Home (2002), gives the appealing impression of being both old and new. In the fourth poem, “Dark Woods,” he brings the theme of reckoning into the light: “Halfway through my life, I find myself / in the dark” (15). Family holidays, a teeming mailbox, shopping for pears: his topics are unpretentious. (Bourgeois? Sure.) His language, however, veers toward the musical. “The Family Car” begins with a sing-song epigraph from Thomas Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain”: “Ah, no, the years, oh!” (61). Sanger’s poem dwells on mortality, but its style borders on the genial chime and patter of nursery rhymes. “Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs,” Hardy wrote to conclude his poem (132). Sanger likewise understands that death awaits us all, and after death, oblivion, but his poems are tender and often funny. Sometimes arch, sometimes bemused, he is a humane observer of daily life. Knowing that death can at best be postponed, he writes in the mode of carpe diem. “The Inbox” is a brilliant sequence of eight sonnets. The first is composed of threadbare phrases and images—“worker bees,” “downtown hives,” “early bird,” “face the music”—but Sanger embeds in the poem details and ironies that redeem hackneyed phrases and “shrill homilies” (43). After thirteen clever but maundering lines, the lustful last one, monosyllabic except for the startling adjective, gets to the point of putting off the day’s work: “Yes, and this paw on your vacillating hip” (43). As a lyric type, the aubade is eminently conventional, but Sanger makes dawn’s beeping and clunking arrival newly memorable. Throughout Dark Woods, his cleverness and verbal mischief enliven traditional forms.

Michael Harris (b. 1944) is a poet of tremendous exactitude. A selection of poems from five books published in four decades, The Gamekeeper replaces (or supplements) his New and Selected Poems (1992). The simple titles of Harris’ first volumes, Sparks (1976) and Grace (1977), suggest flashes of illumination, a search for elegance and beauty, and a spiritual impulse. That of his third volume, In Transit (1985), suggests movement and change, the theme of sic transit gloria mundi. The title of The Gamekeeper comes from the poem of that name in Grace, which describes the utter onset of winter and the disappearance of the gamekeeper, a figure of benevolence and order. But Harris also has an agreeable sense of humour. In Circus (2011), he gave voice to such performers as “The Bearded Lady,” “Weary Willy,” and “Mephisto, the Human Pincushion.” A sloth-like creature, Willy is spectacularly dull: “My act is: I walk across the big tent / floor slowly. This takes three hours, / same as the show” (132). Yet this anti-acrobat is also wise, and engaged in a search for calm: “I am just trying to slow things down / so it’s the circus going round, / not me” (132). In “The View from the Kitchen,” from In Transit, Harris captures a two-year-old’s inquisitiveness and misprision: “‘Dawg!’ he shouts, pointing. ‘Truck,’ I tell him— / ‘Truck!’ He hesitates. ‘Fuct!’ he yells. / We are both delighted with the lesson” (78). If Harris had emphasized the child’s unwitting obscenity, then the poem might have become sentimental or obvious: out of the mouth of babes, etc. But he skilfully makes the amusing mistake only part of an extended domestic scene that generously portrays the indiscriminate curiosity of children, and their difference from us. The final poem in The Gamekeeper, “Work” (from Circus) sketches another parental moment. The son fishes “for the first time, in the murk,” as the proud father watches and watches over (157). Here, Harris is sentimental, the poem a delightful lesson that sometimes the real artistic risk is to say things plainly.

In The Essential Dorothy Roberts, a svelte volume designed to champion “[t]his undervalued poet,” Brian Bartlett collects forty-eight of Roberts’ poems (7). The niece of Charles G. D. Roberts, Dorothy Roberts (1906-1993) was born, as Bartlett notes in his foreword, after Earle Birney and F. R. Scott, but before Irving Layton, P. K. Page, Margaret Avison, and Al Purdy (7). “Her style wasn’t as recognizably contemporary as theirs,” he observes, “in terms of vernacular language, Modernist density, political directness or colourful personae” (8). But if she stands apart from familiar modernist figures, she remains noteworthy as an Atlantic regionalist and as “a poet of subjectivity, memory and mind” (9). The Essential Dorothy Roberts has convinced me to add two or three of her poems to the reading list when I teach modern Canadian poetry—“Dazzle,” perhaps, and “Outburst of May,” with its vivid representation of spring and seasonal change: “May is the truth. To dampen down explosion / Autumn will have to come, the chilling fall / Of spent particulars before another tension” (12).

To conclude, two observations. First: as always, Canadian poetry requires more commentary. Let us have a biography of Roberts and articles exploring The Gamekeeper. Second: the readership for poetry must always be cultivated. Excellent books, including those I have summarized here, lend themselves to enthusiastic teaching, and serve as reminders that those who can should invite poets, and young writers in particular, into the classroom—and encourage students to go from the classroom to wherever local readings take place.

 

Works Cited

Dante Alighieri. The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation. Translated by Robert Pinsky, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Hardy, Thomas. Selected Poems. Edited by Robert Mezey, Penguin, 1998.

Johnstone, Jim, editor. The Next Wave: An Anthology of 21st Century Canadian Poetry. Palimpsest, 2018.

 

Notes

[1] Solie is thanked in the book’s acknowledgements.

[2] In Robert Pinsky’s translation from the Italian: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself / In dark woods, the right road lost” (5).

 

This review was revised on February 7, 2019



This review “Poets Young, Old, Mild, Bold (Revised)” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 7 Feb. 2019. Web.

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